PH227      Half Unit
Genes, Brains and Society

This information is for the 2022/23 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Ella Whiteley


This course is available on the BSc in Philosophy and Economics, BSc in Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method, BSc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and BSc in Politics and Philosophy. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

Course content

This course examines, from a philosophical perspective, the ways in which recent developments in genetics and neuroscience challenge our conceptions of what we are — and what we could become.

Topics covered include:

Human nature: Does the concept of 'human nature’ have any biological basis? Can we distinguish between those traits which are part of 'human nature' and those which are not? Should we attempt to improve human nature by means of technologies such as gene editing?

Gender and the brain: Are ‘sex' and ‘gender' the same thing? Are gender categories natural or social? Are there robust psychological differences between men and women? If so, are these 'hardwired' into the brain or the product of socialization? Are our brains either ‘male’ or ‘female’, or are they ‘intersex’?

Race and the genome: Do races exist? Is there any objective biological basis for racial categorization, or are races socially constructed? Does the concept of ‘race' have a legitimate role in medicine?

Animals and people: What is the evidence for animal sentience? What are the ethical issues surrounding the use of animals in biomedical research? If we could reduce animal suffering through gene editing, should we? Do some non-human animals have ‘personhood’?

Right and wrong: Should neuroscience inform the decision-making of our legal system? Can it be used to help us improve our own moral behaviour?


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the MT.

Lectures: Weeks 1-5 and 7-11

Classes: Weeks 1-5 and 7-11

Formative coursework

Essay (1,500 words) in the MT.

Indicative reading

Suggested introductory readings:

  • Glover, J. (2008) Choosing Children.
  • Jordan-Young, R., (2010). Brain Storm.
  • James, M. (2011) “Race”, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [online]
  • Greene, J. D. (2013) Moral Tribes.


Essay (100%, 1500 words) in the LT.

There is no exam for this half-unit. There will be one summative essay, worth 100% of the mark. 

Key facts

Department: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2021/22: 59

Average class size 2021/22: 16

Capped 2021/22: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills